An autistic man convicted under Hong Kong’s colonial-era sedition law has been sentenced to 12 months in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of doing acts with seditious intent and one count of inciting others to take part in an illegal assembly.

Chan Tai-sum, 23, appeared in front of Judge Stanley Chan, one of the city’s handpicked national security judges, at the District Court on Tuesday.

The District Court in Wan Chai. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The 23-year-old pleaded guilty to the four offences in last month, after Kwok Wai-kin, another national security judge, ruled against Chan’s barrister’s application to move the trial to the High Court.

According to the prosecution, Chan incited people to gather in Causeway Bay and Yau Tsim Mong on Christmas Eve by publishing posts on two telegram groups on December 13 last year.

Chan was also said to have published multiple “seditious” posts on online forum LIHKG between August 19 and December 8 last year, including posts where he described the central and Hong Kong governments as “bandits,” and encouraged people to overturn the “tyranny” of the Communist Party of China.

Mitigation

Chan has autism, and had difficulty in face-to-face communication with other people, his barrister Steven Kwan said during mitigation. Kwan also said that the 23-year-old was bullied during his time in remand.

The barrister said that Chan made those posts as an attempt to gain recognition from other people online, as he could not do so in real life. Chan did not give much thought to the posts before publishing them, Kwan added.

Barrister Steven Kwan. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Citing a Court of Appeal case, Kwan said that the court should take Chan’s mental disorder into account when considering his sentence, as the defendant was influenced by his condition when committing the offence.

Mitigation letters, including one written by Chan himself, were also submitted to the court. Chan was remorseful, Kwan said, which was shown not only in his mitigation letter but also in his decision to plead guilty at an early stage.

Seeing national security law as ‘paper tiger’

Handing down his judgement on Tuesday afternoon, the judge said Chan committed the offence after the implementation of the national security law, which showed that he viewed the Beijing-imposed legislation as a “paper tiger.”

“The defendant having autism is not an excuse to say that he does not understand the legal consequences,” Stanley Chan wrote.

The sedition law, while falling under the Crimes Ordinance, shares the same bail threshold as the national security law, and cases under the colonial-era legislation are also heard by handpicked national security judges.

Stanley Chan. File photo: Judiciary.

Kwan’s mitigation that the defendant acted alone was also refuted by the judge, who said that the argument was a “generalisation.” Judge Chan ruled that the defendant could have incited “lone wolves” who could harm themselves and others, and thus warranted a heavy punishment to act as a deterrent.

Judge Chan also said he omitted all “inappropriate wordings and phrases” in his judgement to avoid publishing illegal messages or insulting words for the defendant again.

The judge sentenced the 23-year-old to 10 months in prison for the incitement charge, and eight months in prison for the sedition charges after applying a one-third deduction for pleading guilty.

After ruling that four months of the prison term for the sedition charges could be served consecutively with the 10-month sentence, Chan was sentenced to 12 months in prison, with the judge deducting another two months in light of the defendant’s background and mental disorder.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.